This is a talk delivered by David Wacks (Associate Professor of Spanish at the University of Oregon) at a workshop given by the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Princeton University on 24 April 2010.
The contemporary popular imagination sees medievals as people who are incapable of nuance, who lived in a coarse time characterized by doctrinal rigidity, violence, and cruelty. However, it sometimes happens that it is us moderns who project our own neuroses and taxonomies on the medieval world (beginning, of course, with the very concept of 'medieval').
The Love Stories of Jacob ben Elazar is a 13th-century Hebrew story collection that is almost completely unknown to scholars of contemporary collections written in Latin and Spanish. Written almost precisely when Gonzalo de Berceo was writing his Milagros de Nuestra Señora, Love Stories combines thematic materials and narrative techniques from Arabic, Hebrew and Romance language literatures, typifying the multiculturalism of 13th-century Toledo where Ben Elazar lived and worked.
This state of affairs is hardly reflected by modern scholarship of Love Stories, of which there is almost none. A small handful of Hebraists in Israel, Spain, and the US have turned their attention to the work, but it has not appeared on the Hispanist radar. In fact, by nature of its impurity (hybridity), Love Stories is off the radar of most scholarship altogther. The most recent modern edition by David Yonah (Tel Aviv 1992) is so rare that I was unable to page a copy from interlibrary loan from any North American university. A German library sent it to Eugene where I photocopied it.
Hebrew scholars have written very litle about it, especially when in comparison to Judah al-Harizi's (Toledo) Takhkemoni or even Joseph ibn Zabara's (Barcelona) Sefer Shaashuim (Book of Delights) (both ca. 1200). Scholars of Romance do not seem to have taken notice of it, as they have of Ibn Zabara and to a greater extent the lyric poets of the 11th and 12th centuries in whose poetry are found the romance jarchas. In this paper I will read Ben Elazar's Love Stories as a work doubly marginalized by disciplinary blind spots (Hebraism and Hispanism), a work doubly deserving of our attention: on the one hand for its novelty and literary craftsfmanship, and on the other because it is a reminder of what sometimes falls through the cracks that we imagine between literary subdisciplines.